Submit a link Features Reviews Podcasts Video Forums More ▾

Forget scarlet fever: What really blinded Mary Ingalls

Anybody who has spent much time with children's literature knows that scarlet fever blinded Mary Ingalls.

But scarlet fever doesn't cause blindness.

Mary really did become blind, though, in real life as well as in the books, so what was the real culprit? A paper published this week in the journal Pediatrics speculates that it could have been viral meningoencephalitis — inflammation in the brain and in the membranes that surround the central nervous system.

There are several possible causes. In Europe and Asia, ticks can spread a virus that causes meningoencephalitis. West Nile virus can cause it, as well. So can the mumps. And so can herpes simplex type 1 — the oral herpes virus that is present in the vast majority of people.

Which means that this story not only has ties to the other Little House history pieces we've run here at Boing Boing — the meteorology of the Long Winter, and the crazy connection between the Ingalls' and a family of serial killers — it's also, possibly, another example of a heroine from children's fiction who had herpes.

The full paper, sadly, is behind a paywall. But The New York Times' Motherlode blog has a nice summary of it.

Image: Wikipedia editor Lrcg2012, via CC

How old is post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is very hard, and very weird to try to get a handle on how human health has changed between the 19th century and today. Obviously, the way we live has changed dramatically. But understanding how that impacts health (or doesn't) is complicated by the fact that healthcare, science, and public health research changed dramatically during those years, as well.

And all that science hasn't happened in a vacuum. The names we give various disorders change. Whether or not we consider something to be a disorder, at all, might change. And our cultural understanding changes, too—especially when it comes to mental illness.

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughn Bell has an excellent breakdown of two recent studies that try to put the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a cultural and historical context. Many people assume that PTSD is just a new name for something that has always existed—look at shell shock, which made it onto Downton Abbey last season. But these new papers suggest that the distinction between what soldiers experienced in the past and what they experience today might go deeper than naming conventions.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing ... there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

Read the rest at Mind Hacks

David Dobbs adds some more context to Bell's post at the Neuron Culture blog.

Autism: Epidemic or awareness?

At Discover's big-idea blog The Crux, Emily Willingham has a really interesting post about the prevalence of autism—is it actually increasing, or is this really about medical definitions and increased attention?

This is a topic we've talked about here on BoingBoing before, most recently back in March, when Steve Silberman offered some scientific evidence that suggests the ostensible increases in autism prevalence are "caused" by more accurate diagnosis.

But Willingham's piece adds a couple of new, interesting details to that still-emerging story. Being more aware of neurodiversity makes it look like there's more neurodiversity than there was before we were aware of it. And that was true even for the guy who invented the diagnosis of autism.

Leo Kanner first described autism almost 70 years ago, in 1944. Before that, autism didn’t exist as far as clinicians were concerned, and its official prevalence was, therefore, zero. There were, obviously, people with autism, but they were simply considered insane. Kanner himself noted in a 1965 paper that after he identified this entity, “almost overnight, the country seemed to be populated by a multitude of autistic children,” a trend that became noticeable in other countries, too, he said.

...by 1953, one autism expert was warning about the “abuse of the diagnosis of autism” because it “threatens to become a fashion.”

Read the rest of Willingham's piece, which includes a detailed look at several different studies that back up this view of autism with evidence. It looks like the majority of the "increase" in diagnoses can really be attributed to the process of diagnosis itself.

Image: 74/365 - autism awareness., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from macbeck's photostream